Pathway to Sydara: Guardian of the Gate

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Ziaxe awoke the next morning—or at least he thought it was morning since the dark dungeons hid the sunlight from him. He slowly stretched his cramped muscles as he stood up off of his cot. The cot proved to be the most uncomfortable thing he had ever slept on. As he stared with disgust at it he realized he should have followed Alavar's idea and slept on the ground.

He moved around the cell, wondering what strange events would take place today. Thanks to the professor's reassurance, he knew he was safe from any torture or death sentences at the moment. He pessimistically saw that he couldn't say the same for the professor.

Despite the safeness he felt at the moment, he knew that he would not be safe from the boredom that would come with being locked in a cell all day. Most of the prisoners in the dungeon have spent years repeating the same routine of waking up, eating, and going back to sleep. He knew the guards refused to let the prisoners leave their cells for any reasons for that was one of the main ideas in the stories and rumors he heard of the Beranian Dungeons.

No one could leave the dungeons. Even if a prisoner had died, it would take weeks—or maybe even months—for the guards to realize he died. That explained the rotting smell that always flew in the air. Ziaxe noticed the smell more the longer he stayed in his cell, the smell of someone who died a while ago.

Ziaxe walked to the bars of his cell. The gentle Professor Alavar was still asleep in his crouched position against the wall of his cell. Ziaxe decided to let the old man sleep.

He looked over at Bellara's cell and saw the witch was awake, repeating what she was doing when Ziaxe first saw her in her cell. She was talking to herself in that muttering, weak voice of hers.

Ziaxe had come to realize the perplexity of the old woman. She had many different personalities, it seemed, as if she was more than one person. One minute she would be speaking in formal archaic language; the next she would be speaking in sarcastic and rude tones towards General Virok. She also would switch to a normal tone as if she was not an old, elderly woman, but a young, solemn woman who understands things better than others can perceive.

When Virok had visited the dungeons, Bellara had a brash attitude that made it seem she was one step ahead of him in everything that was happening. She had taken off her guise as a weak, confused old lady, and explained everything that Virok seemed to have misunderstood in a matter of minutes. It seemed as if Virok and the witch were playing a secret game. Bellara had been trying to get Virok to do something ever since that day she was arrested in the rich district, but Virok refused, seeming to have a better plan for whatever their situation was.

All in all, their little game seemed to impact more than themselves. It impacted all of Berania with the killing of Broniton, and it would soon affect all of Sargenia if no one stopped them.

Bellara continued to mutter to herself. She said things about her "Master" as if she missed whoever he was dearly. Her tone would sometimes turn dejected by sounding as if she had accidently upset her "Master" sometime in the past.

Maybe it was because of Ziaxe's aching headache he had had ever since last night or because of his boredom in his cell, but he found the courage to ask the witch what she was doing.

The witch looked up from her crouched position in the shadows of her cell with a look of surprise, as if she had been broken out of a deep trance. "It is nothing of importance, Holy One."

Ziaxe raised his eyebrow. "Holy One?"

"Thou art the Nizain after all," she reminded him.

Ziaxe once again had his unwanted title waved in his face. "Yes, I remember. I was just wondering who this 'Master' of yours was."

Bellara glanced with aversion at Ziaxe. "How dare thee listen in on my prayers! I should summon a Demon to smite thee right now!"

The sudden outbreak startled Ziaxe. "I'm sorry," he replied quickly. "It's just that you are kind of loud. I can hear you over the other prisoners with their moans." He realized that his comment may have been taken as rude, but it was true.

The witch frowned. "I shall spare thee for the moment, Nizain, but thou must take heed that there will come a day when our paths will cross. Our destinations shall be opposites, and our goals shall be different. For the moment, I am thy friend, and thou art a fine tool in mine plans. By tomorrow, I may be thy enemy if thou should stand in mine way."

There she goes again confusing me, thought Ziaxe as he examined the confusing old woman, who turned away from him to continue her "prayers.”

Hours passed as Ziaxe sat in his cramped cell, bored out of his mind. He found entertainment throwing a loose stone at the wall repeatedly while Bellara continued to talk to herself. He sighed deeply.

"Good morning, Ziaxe," said the gentle voice of Professor Alavar when he had finally awaken.

"Good morning, Professor," replied Ziaxe as he continued to throw his stone around. "How'd you sleep?"

"Wonderfully… though the ground's not as comfortable as my bed back home."

"I bet the ground would've been better than this cot here." Ziaxe gestured to the as hard as stone bed.

Alavar gave a small smile. "Don't worry though, Ziaxe. Sarben has blessed us with a wonderful day."

Ziaxe was dubious of that—since he couldn't see this "wonderful day" outside of the dark dungeon.

Lunchtime arrived and small bowls of gruel were delivered to the prisoners by the two guards who kept watch. Some of the prisoners rejected the rancid smelling meal, but Ziaxe had been starving for some form of food.

He instantly shuddered at the terrible taste the first sip gave, but his hunger forced him to eat more. As he grew more adjusted to the taste, he recognized the vague taste of meat, but the meat taste was overpowered by the taste of something Ziaxe could not recognize. He realized, though, that he most likely didn't want to know the full contents of the gruel in the first place.

Despite the meal's horridness, he devoured it all, along with the other prisoners who were hungry.

A few more hours passed, though time means nothing to one in a cage.

Two new guards entered, and the two guards already in the dungeon left, apparently changing shifts. Ziaxe sat in his cell, still bored, until he heard a familiar voice where the guards were switching.

The two new guards walked between the cells until they stopped at Ziaxe's cell. They were not in full Beranian armor, but they wore chainmail, helmets, and had swords belted at their waists. Ziaxe sat still, looking at the ground, afraid that the guards had an evil intent for coming to him. A sudden chill had enveloped him as he felt Darkness approach.

"Ziaxe?" said one of the guards with that familiar voice.

Ziaxe looked up at the guards, their faces barely visible in the dim light. His heart jumped. "Kron?" he said automatically when he saw his friend's face in the helmet.

"It is you, Ziaxe!" said Kron joyfully, but quickly reduced his voice back to a whisper as if he felt like he was being watched. "Virok told us about what happened, but I couldn't believe it."

"What?" said Ziaxe, confused at his friend's appearance, but overjoyed just the same. He narrowed his eyes to see Srion as the other guard next to Kron. Srion was also smiling happily to have found the old companion.

"Virok said you killed the king last night," explained Kron anxiously, "and that that was why you weren't in the barracks. Of course, I would've never believed that, but now that I see you here I'm not sure anymore." Kron rushed through what he said and changed emotions quickly at the positive and negative things he said.

"Slow down, Kron," commanded Ziaxe, wanting a quick answer. "Explain what happened."

"Oh, all right." Kron took a deep breath. "When we all woke up this morning—all of us from the poor district—we noticed that you weren't here. That was the start of everything strange. This whole day's been strange really."

"Stay focused, Kron."

"Okay. Well, when we woke up, General Virok came in and said he had bad news. He said with a melancholy expression, 'This may be hard for all of ye to understand, but the king has fallen in the night. Thy companion, the one named Ziaxe, was there in the throne room when this took place. The guards were just changing shifts at that moment, and I was too late. I found this Ziaxe by King Broniton's dead body with blood splattered all over his hands. I had him instantly arrested for murder, but that has not helped mend my aching heart. For I was the king's most trusted advisor, and I loved him like a brother, or maybe even as a father. I know this may be hard for all of ye to take in right now in this early morning, but I must ask ye all to be brave. King Broniton is dead, and he has no heirs to call his own. As Head of the High Council, I must take the king's place until we may hopefully find another of the royal line. But alas! I fear there is no more left of the Sargenian line. I take this burden onto myself, so farewell, my soldiers. Continue to make Sargenia proud!'"

Kron sighed after he finished his long recitation, and he seemed a bit proud of his performance of Virok's speech. "After that we all got a more extensive tour of the whole castle, and we learned where the dungeons are. Srion and I decided to sneak here as guards and find you. Those other two guards are just on a break to find some rum, so we can't stay for too long."

Ziaxe frowned as he thought over the whole matter. This showed what Virok's overall plan had been. He had not only wanted to become Nizain. He wanted to become King of Sargenia! "You don't believe him, do you, Kron?" asked Ziaxe, hoping to find his friend's trust.

"Of course not, Ziaxe," said Kron with a grin. "All of us knew you. There's no way you could be a secret murderer. Sadly, Kycan believes otherwise and has a few who are following him.

“But, anyways… would you like to give us an explanation though? Things are becoming strange, and I can't keep up with all these changes. Ever since last night, we all felt like our lives had been changed as if someone did something to us."

Ziaxe felt the chill of Darkness again and instantly remembered what Virok had done in the barracks. He brushed away that mystery for a moment as he retold the tale of how Virok came to the barracks and how he had followed Virok to the throne room and ended with how he was captured. He decided to carefully hide the fact about him being the Nizain though and him talking to Sarben. The whole story was enough to make someone think he was mad.

On a second thought, he had left out the mention of this "Vulnor" person that Gilart said related to Kron. Kron was just starting to understand what was happening, and Ziaxe didn't want to attack him with mysteries like everyone else did to him already.

Srion came forward from where he was standing behind Kron, keeping watch. "So you're saying Virok killed the king?"

"Yes, he did," replied Ziaxe.

"But Virok has been the king's right hand man for years. Why would he choose now to kill the king if he's had all this time to do it before?"

"I'm not sure, Srion. Things are truly getting confusing."

"But what did Virok do to us then?" asked Kron. "And why didn't it affect you?"

"I'm not sure about that either, Kron. I know things are getting strange and all our lives are changing, but right now, you need to be the one watching out for Virok. I'm stuck here for a while, but I am safe from Virok. Professor Alavar over there is also safe, and he says that Virok will need us eventually." Ziaxe lied about that, of course, but what could he tell Kron? That he was the legendary Nizain? Both Srion and Kron would have trouble believing that. Ziaxe barely believed it himself.

"Well, if you say so, Ziaxe," replied Kron dubiously. "I guess we'll be leaving. We'll keep an ear out for you. Farewell, Ziaxe." He reached his hand between Ziaxe's bars and they clasped hands. He then turned to the professor, who had been watching their conversation with a look of speculation while he twirled his white beard with his fingers. "Farewell, Professor," said Kron.

"Farewell, Kron," said Alavar. "Be brave, for this world is changing right in front of you, and you must be ready."

And so, Ziaxe's friends left the dungeon, and the two other guards returned shortly afterwards with two tankards of rum waving joyfully in their hands.

"Did you feel it, Ziaxe?" asked Professor Alavar suddenly after a moment of silence.

"Feel what?" replied Ziaxe, unsure what he meant.

"I finally understand what Virok did to your friends. He broke one of the ancient rules that the gods placed down themselves. He gave Darkness to Creatures of Light."

"What do you mean?"

"Didn't you feel it, Ziaxe? Even I did. They are streaking Darkness everywhere, raw, untamed Darkness. Didn't you feel a chill?"

"I also felt it," said the witch Bellara as she entered the conversation from where she had been sitting in the darkness. "It surprised me how far Virok has gone to create a perfect army."

"What are you talking about?" asked Alavar through the wall that separated their cells.

"Virok has always been aiming to make a powerful army. That's his master plan."

"So he turns them all into Vidians?" Alavar's face grew red as his fury grew. "He's more of a monster than I ever thought!"

"Vidians?" said Ziaxe, remembering the story of Vician and his followers.

"Yes, Ziaxe," replied Alavar. "Remember I told you about your name meaning 'One of Darkness?'

"Of course."

"And I told you how ever since Vician began his rule in Vidala, 'Ones of Darkness' devoted themselves to him and called themselves Vidians."

"So every person who is a follower of Darkness is a Vidian?"

"Well, in modern times, the term 'Vidian' refers to people who can control the Darkness. Your friends have sadly been given this ability—or cursed with it as I see it."

Ziaxe couldn't believe it. "Virok is a Vidian then? When I told him my name, though, he seemed to recognize its old meaning."

Alavar frowned. "Virok is a savant. He knows many things about this world. Perhaps he is as educated as me, but his knowledge is used to help an evil cause."

"And what's that cause?" Ziaxe felt as if he was on the verge of a breakthrough of finally understanding everything.

The professor caught himself though. "I cannot tell you that right now, Ziaxe. You will learn it in time."

Another one of Alavar's answers that avoid other answers, thought Ziaxe drily.

"I am sorry, Ziaxe," said Alavar, "but the truth can be hard to understand. And you need to be focused for events to come. I want you to be prepared for the upcoming storm before you understand the reasons for the storm."

Ziaxe nodded, not fully satisfied, but forcing himself to accept it anyways. He was solving this mystery one by one. Virok was a Vidian? He would have never guessed. He assumed Vidians were hideous creatures that destroyed everything they saw, but Virok was actually a handsome man who appeared to have complex thoughts like a normal person and not like a monster.

Ziaxe remembered that as the Nizain it was his duty to stop the Vidians from trying to take over the people of Light. I'm doing a great job so far, he thought sarcastically.

The day continued after that. The prisoners were fed more gruel for dinner, and Ziaxe had resorted back to throwing a stone at the wall for entertainment. Nighttime approached—though Ziaxe could not see the night outside. The stillness that one feels in the middle of a quiet night came over the prison, and the silence was almost palpable as Ziaxe laid on his cot, staring at his cell's ceiling. It was so quiet that he could hear the small sounds that people usually ignore like the sound of mice scurrying across the floor and the soft crackle of the torch fires that lit the dungeon.

He continued to listen, but there came a new sound. There was sound of metal armor moving, the sound an armor clad soldier always inevitably makes. And then a sudden, suppressed thud followed by another happened. Something was wrong. The now familiar Dark chill came over Ziaxe.

He got off his cot and quietly looked out the bars, carefully fitting his head through to see what was happening. He could not see Bellara in the cell across from his, but he saw Alavar was awake, with alert eyes. The professor looked at Ziaxe as if he knew something was coming also. He gestured to Ziaxe to be silent.

Ziaxe responded with a raised eyebrow as he wondered what was happening. The shadows in the prison were deep and almost menacing as if they giant claws coming to grab their prey. Ziaxe turned to where the guards usually sat and saw that he could not see anything. He squinted his eyes to find what lay in the shadows' depths, but when he found what hid there, he almost let out a scream of horror.

Professor Alavar noticed Ziaxe's reaction and gave him a hard look with steel eyes. The two guards were dead, their bodies leaking blood on the ground. The blood flowed along the ground like a slow stream until it stopped completely as if it represented the remaining moments of Ziaxe's life. What shocked Ziaxe the most, though, was what caused the deaths of the guards.

A beast—that was all he could call it—stood looking down at the carcasses as if checking to make sure its prey were dead. It turned, and Ziaxe saw it fully. It was a short creature that limped forward as if it could not move both feet at the same time. It held two bloody daggers in its gnarled hands with long fingernails. The whole creature seemed vaguely human though with the size of a child but the muscles and physique of a well fit man. The only clothing it wore was a ragged loincloth.

As it limped forward, Ziaxe saw how its pale human-like skin had strange blotches along it. It was not the kind of blemishes one would see on a normal human's body. They were dark spots at various parts of the beast's arms and legs, almost as if Darkness leaked out of its body.

Ziaxe hid back in the shadows of his cell as it approached, but he felt as if it was all for nothing. Fear froze him as his heart began to pound.

Then it was at his cell. Ziaxe had taken Alavar's advice by keeping his yells inaudible, but if he had it his own way, he would be screaming and yelling for help. The creature looked in Ziaxe's cell as if the shadows meant nothing to it. That was when Ziaxe saw its face. Such a hideous face! Its head was already strangely crooked to one side as if its neck was broken. The face had a large, bulbous nose, pale, parchment-like skin, yellow, crooked teeth, and short, dark hair that was mussed into all different directions. The worst of it all was its eyes, red eyes, the color of blood; red eyes that saw through the darkest of shadows.

It then turned to Alavar’s cell. "Alavar," said the short, limping beast with a strange, guttural voice as it sheathed his daggers in two sheaths that were attached to its loincloth.

"Yes, Gurgan," replied Alavar. "It’s nice of you to come save us.”

"Yes… Gurgan save Alavar…. Gurgan hear Nizain call. Full moon. Where Nizain?"

Ziaxe watched this strange conversation with profound confusion. The beast called "Gurgan" spoke in a gruff voice and with the grammar of an uneducated child.

"Yes, he's here." Alavar gestured to Ziaxe, and Gurgan returned to Ziaxe's cell.

He stared into the cell, his red eyes seeing everything. He appeared to have a small revelation as he stared as he was silent for a moment. "Like Javen," he said, “Not baby now.” He turned back to Alavar. "Time go now."

"Did you find the keys?"

Gurgan shook his head. "Use shadow."

Alavar frowned. "You should know that I hate doing that."

"No time."

The professor, uncharacteristically, groaned. "All right."

Gurgan grabbed the bars of Alavar’s cell, and Ziaxe felt another chill. Gurgan nodded to Alavar, and the professor hesitantly walked to the bars. When he touched the bars, he surprisingly walked through as if he was intangible.

Ziaxe started and jumped up off his cell's ground in shock. Alavar had just walked through these cold, iron bars that had kept him captured for all this time. Ziaxe wondered if the professor had known how to do this the whole time he was in the prison.

But it was not just Alavar. It was this Gurgan. Ziaxe had been feeling that chill he felt whenever Darkness was near. All he could figure was that Gurgan was a Vidian of some sort. Or even some kind of Demon. Ziaxe had never seen a creature so repulsive and grotesque, not even in his nightmares.

Alavar stood silently for a moment in what looked to be him trying to regain his composure after going through what must have been a frightening experience. He shook his hands quickly as if shaking away the memory and turned to Ziaxe's cell. "Ziaxe," he said, "we're going to get you out. Gurgan here is going to have to use Darkness to help, so try not to panic."

Ziaxe, of course, panicked. He was somewhat more afraid of leaving the cell to be near that hideous creature than walking through the bars. But when the creature came over to his cell, he threw away any fears he had so he could escape and get as far away from the dungeons as possible. He realized that he feared Virok more than anyone else at the moment, so he had to escape. After all, Professor Alavar seemed to trust this little monster, so how dangerous could he be?

Gurgan held the bars of Ziaxe's cell and nodded to him. Ziaxe took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and began to walk slowly to the bars, expecting to feel the coldness of them.

But when he was where the bars should have been, he found himself in complete Darkness. It surrounded him, rubbing against his skin as if trying to call out to him, to tell him to become part of it.

Ziaxe had been raised in the world of Light, so there was no way he could have ever been prepared for the feeling of Darkness. It had an eerie feeling as it moved around him like wisps of smoke. He stood on air as if Darkness made up the ground and walls around him. A feeling of hopelessness came over him as he saw no light, no way of escaping the Darkness, yet there also came the warm feeling of finding a home in the Darkness, finding a way of life in the shadows. He stood alone in the shadows, lost, feeling the call of the Darkness tempt him to give up his life and join it.

A hand grabbed him unexpectedly and pulled him forward. He fell onto the cold ground of the prison. For a moment, he stayed on the ground on his hands and knees shaking violently.

The hand that had saved him from the darkness was on his shoulder now. "Ziaxe, are you okay?" asked Alavar with a worried voice that was also curious and surprised.

Ziaxe turned to see the professor kneeling down next to him. His knees and hands had been skinned when he fell, and blood was slowly dripping out. He swore at his constant misfortune. "I'm okay, Professor, I guess," he replied, still shaking slightly, as he slowly stood up. He felt as if he had almost drowned in an ocean. "What happened?"

"You went into the Darkness. That's how you got through the bars. It's a Vidian trick. I'm sorry you had to experience that. You can't stop moving though. If you stayed too long the Darkness would have taken you as one of its own."

Gurgan nodded his agreement with sad, red eyes as if he understood Alavar clearly.

"I don't want to ever do that again," said Ziaxe. He stood up and was for the first time standing next to the creature Gurgan. Gurgan was shorter than Ziaxe had thought, the Vidian about half of Ziaxe's height.

"You will have to though, Ziaxe," replied Alavar, despondently. "You are the Nizain after all. You cannot always dwell in Light for that will show favoritism. You must someday accept the Darkness, so you can balance both Light and Dark."

Ziaxe did not like the sound of that, but Gurgan cut them off with a gesture. "Time go," he said with his limited vocabulary.

Before they went to leave the dungeon, Ziaxe looked in on Bellara's cell. He peered in, trying to locate the witch, but he could not even see her outline. Curiosity arose inside him as he ran to where Gurgan and Alavar were stepping carefully around the bodies of the dead guards.

When Ziaxe was by Alavar's side he whispered, "Where's Bellara?"

Alavar looked over at Ziaxe with a raised eyebrow. "Did you really think her cell could ever hold her?" he asked. "She is a Witch as you may have already realized. She is as much of a Vidian as Gurgan here is. The iron bars never meant a thing to her."

Alavar went over to a closet that was near the exit of the dungeon. The closet was full of weapons and equipment that must have been taken away from the prisoners. Ziaxe found his sword inside, but remembered that his bow and arrows were still at the barracks. He was afraid those would be lost forever.

He pondered what Alavar had told him about Bellara as they continued out the dungeons with Gurgan in the lead and a few prisoners crying for their freedoms also. The witch Bellara was truly a confusing character. One minute she seemed a helpless old woman and the next she seems to be a wielder of Darkness who was never truly captured by Virok. He wondered if Virok realized this. He probably had, but he saw that their little game made Bellara stay where she was.

Gurgan led the professor and the young Nizain down long corridors. He ran ahead with his strange limp-like walk, with his right leg seeming strong and the other seeming to drag behind. All together his running seemed almost like a kind of hopping motion that put him far ahead of the others.

They continued down the long, endless corridors, Gurgan only stopping at random moments as he seemed to sense where the guards were on patrol, and he picked out the best route. They went down a corridor that Ziaxe had never even noticed because it had only a few torches lighting it. The corridor's light gradually turned to pure darkness as they went farther down it.

"How can he see where we're going?" whispered Ziaxe to Alavar as he stayed close to him, fearing he would get lost in the shadows.

"Gurgan is a special kind of Vidian," replied Alavar in an equally quiet whisper. "Darkness has become his home. Where we see nothing, he sees everything. To him, the Darkness is clear and bright while the Light is dark and haunting."

Alavar's explanation confused Ziaxe even more, but he decided to hold any more questions until they were safely out of the Beranian Castle.

Eventually, they came to a dead end. Ziaxe accidently continued to walk as Gurgan had stopped and slammed against the wall in front of him. He swore to himself again at his constant bad luck. "What happened?" asked Ziaxe. "Why'd we stop?"

Gurgan's guttural voice came out of the darkness right behind Ziaxe causing him to start. "Move," was all he said.

Ziaxe obeyed the strange, short creature and walked back to where he faintly saw Alavar's outline. His eyes had been slowly adjusting to the darkness around them, but he was still hopelessly blind.

Gurgan went to the wall Ziaxe had walked into and could be heard moving his hands against the stone as if searching it. After a moment of silence, with the only noise the noise of Gurgan's gnarled hands scraping against the wall, there was a soft click. Then, suddenly, the wall in front of them began to descend into the ground and bluish light slowly poured into the dark corridor. When the wall had finally vanished into the ground, the trio saw tall grass and moonlight through the new opening. "Where are we?" asked Ziaxe, bewildered.

"Outside," replied Gurgan. He walked ahead, studying the environment with his red eyes scanning everywhere.

"How'd we get here?"

"It's a secret exit," replied Alavar, who walked out onto the grass while Ziaxe stood still, trying to comprehend how they got there. "Virok has used this passage when sneaking Vidians like Gilart in. It was a way for Virok to know what was happening outside of Berania." The professor looked up at the clear, star-filled sky with distant eyes. "This was also the way Prince Farli took to escape his father's fate. You must understand by now, Ziaxe, that I am truly a criminal here. I helped Farli escape, and by doing so I, in a way, kidnapped the prince."

"But it was for his own safety, right?" said Ziaxe as he walked onto the grass. "If he stayed he would've died with the king."

"Yes, that is true. I knew Virok was going to strike one of these days, so it was my duty to keep the royal line alive."

Gurgan was still scanning the field of grass ahead of them. They appeared to have exited the walls of the castle and were in the fields to the east of it that were unpopulated by any of the men of the rich district. The Vidian turned to Alavar. "We go now," he said, his red eyes staring out, seemingly blind. He turned and continued to lead their escape with his limping run.

They continued running down the fields of tall grass, skirting the lights of the rich district to the west and south. Ziaxe had never been in this part of Berania, but he did not have the time to enjoy it since they were still in danger of being found. Their escape from the castle had been silent and seemingly flawless, but that did not stop the guards from eventually noticing their disappearance and the dead guard bodies they left behind.

Ziaxe kept up his running speed behind Alavar, who surprisingly kept a constant speed for an elderly man. Gurgan trudged ahead as if weariness would never catch him. After running for about three quarters of a mile, they had made their way around the rich district and found the dirt road that led to the poor district. Ziaxe's chest was pounding by then, and he was glad when Gurgan stopped to do another scan of the land.

The poor district was in sight as Ziaxe sat on the grass to catch his breath. He could see the small houses and the pond with its many boulders. Memories of all his good times there flashed through his mind. He would have done anything to have things return to the way they were, but he knew everything had changed for good.

He saw Venna’s house and all of the others. He remembered Venna’s beautiful smile and how it brightened up his day. She was the angel of his dream, the Light of his life. The words of Sarben from his dream that he still remembered came to him. Thou needs to learn to keep sight of thy light. He was not doing a very good job at keeping track of her.

He also remembered the kind Nea, who was probably more alone now than she had ever been since the departure of the young men of the poor district. He then saw his own house and remembered how his uncle Alben had been missing for a long time. "Where's Alben?" he asked softly as if assuming Alavar will answer.

Alavar looked down at him from where he stood a few inches away. "Alben has lost his way," he replied just as softly. "He would have never finished the Harvest, and winter is approaching. He ran away from his duties."

Though the answer did not precisely tell of Alben's location, Ziaxe assumed his drunken uncle had left for somewhere else, since he would have never survived in the poor district. He did not know where Alben would go though except a tavern or bar in the rich district.

It surprised Ziaxe how Alavar seemed to have so much knowledge of everything happening around him. It seemed as if the professor shared the divine mind of Sarben.

Gurgan returned to his run suddenly, leading his escapees down to the poor district. It did not take them that long to reach the pond, and once there they went to Alavar's cottage. The professor reached down to the ground in front of his cottage and dug a small hole with his fingers. After a moment of Ziaxe watching him curiously, Alavar came back up with a key in his hand. The professor had hidden a spare key underground! Ziaxe laughed in spite of himself at the genius of his professor.

Once Alavar unlocked the door they hurried inside and closed the door behind them. Alavar fumbled in the darkness for a second until he lit a lantern that was among all the other strange objects in his house.

The three fugitives took seats at Alavar's table. "All right," said Alavar when they were all settled. "We must plan what to do next—though I already know what must happen. King Broniton Isonil is dead, but his heir Farli lives on so the kingdom has not yet fallen. Virok has assumed control over Berania, so it is not safe here for any of us. We must flee for Salras."

He turned to Ziaxe. "There is a problem though," he said solemnly. "The only way we could ever save Berania is if we can prove to the men of Salras that Virok is the enemy. Virok is a well-respected man because of all his glory as a Beranian General. It has all been a ruse though as you have figured out. We must make Farli the next king then, for Sargenia must have a strong ruler to fight Virok.

"That brings us to the next problem. The Prince of Sargenia can only have his coronation if he is presented with the crown and scepter of Sargenia. Those two objects still reside in Broniton's royal apartments. I didn't want to risk trying to find them while we were escaping, but it seems I'll have to return to find them."

"That's ridiculous!" interjected Ziaxe. "You can't go back just for two trivial things like that. I haven't even seen King Broniton wear a crown or wield a scepter."

"The crown and scepter are a symbol of Sarben's power, Ziaxe. Broniton only had them with him on important matters. They show the people of the Kingdoms of Ancient Sarbenia that there is hope in even the darkest of places. Without it, we would have no hope in uniting Sarbenia."

"Why are you trying to unite Sarbenia!?" yelled Ziaxe, trying to reject Alavar's absurd ideas.

Alavar looked Ziaxe straight in the eyes. "We are entering a war here, Ziaxe. Do you understand? Virok is a Vidian. He has taken over Berania for the Darkness. He may very well do what Vician did not too long ago and attempt to conquer all of the Kingdoms of Light. He has the chance and power to unite the Kingdoms of Darkness against us. The Battle of Berania was a battle won of luck, you must understand. We would have never hoped to win if Vician hadn't lost against Broniton. We must have the Kingdoms of Sarbenia united if a second Vician War approaches. We cannot trust luck this time!"

Ziaxe looked sheepishly at the table, embarrassed at his thoughtlessness.

Alavar let a little bit of anger and annoyance at Ziaxe’s questions show through his usual calmness. "All right, then…. Now here is where I must tell you of your mission. In Salras, there is a man named Naje. He is a Vidian, but he has denounced the ways of the god Ziavaxe. I need you to go find him. He will train you in the ways of the Nizain." Ziaxe began to object, but Alavar raised his hand for silence, refusing to waste anymore time. "I know this is hard for you, but you must go alone. We will show you how to leave Berania. From there you must continue east until you reach Salras. Gurgan and I will stay here and retrieve the crown and scepter. When that is accomplished we will come to Salras also."

Ziaxe did not like the plan at all, and his eyes were full of fear.

"Fear not, Ziaxe," consoled the professor, “I have always had faith in the Nizain. I believe in you.”

They were silent for a moment as Ziaxe felt the weight of Alavar’s words.

"I believe I can help you some though,” added the professor. He left his stool and went to a chest by the wall. He came back out with a chainmail shirt and offered it to Ziaxe. "I understand that you've never worn chainmail and it will be uncomfortable, but I'd be more reassured if you wore it while you travel."

Ziaxe nodded in understanding as he took the armor.

"Now, I did give you your father's bow and quiver, right?"

Ziaxe's heart suddenly sunk to his stomach as he remembered the bow being at the barracks still. He lowered his head in shame as he told Alavar.

"Oh, that's disappointing," said Alavar as he noticed Ziaxe's sorrow at the topic. “I guess you’ll have to go without it.”

When Ziaxe was fully equipped with his bronze sword and chainmail, Gurgan led him and Alavar to the pond. Alavar had also given him a knapsack that he filled with food and other various supplies. Ziaxe was extremely grateful as he slapped the knapsack onto his back over his sword. The three continued past the pond and followed the stream that led to the culvert in the east Great Wall.

"This is it, Ziaxe," said Alavar when they stopped.

"This is what?" asked Ziaxe. "How do I leave?"

Alavar looked over at Gurgan, who stood behind Ziaxe, and gave a nod. Gurgan placed his hand on the bars of the culvert and nodded back. Ziaxe felt a small Chill of Darkness but mistook it for the chill of the nighttime air.

"Goodbye, Nizain Ziaxe," said Alavar. He then pushed Ziaxe. The Nizain was caught off-guard and fell backwards, expecting to hit the hard Great Wall, but he didn't. He felt that strange feeling he had felt when he passed through the bars of his cell in the dungeon, the feeling of Darkness all around him, but it lasted only a second. He landed on his back on the grass outside of the Great Wall….

Outside…. He was finally outside of Berania!

He slowly got up off the ground and brushed the dirt off his clothing, looking around at the world around him. He took only a few steps when a dark figure appeared. It was a hooded figure in a dark robe, and Ziaxe felt the Chill of Darkness come over him. He instantly unsheathed the sword belted to his back, feeling more curious than frightened.

The figure did not take heed, though. It just stood there, and even though its eyes were not visible, Ziaxe felt as if cold, hard eyes were watching him. The figure walked to him, seeming to pose no threat at all, and when it was almost past him it spoke in a soft, female voice. "Venna. Ziaxe. Why?"

It passed then and walked through the culvert as if it was part of the Darkness around it.


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